Acoustics don’t deter Smithsonian Chamber Players

November 25, 2013

The Smithsonian Chamber Players battled cool temperatures and super-dry acoustics at the National Museum of American History to give two string quintets a warm and stirring performance Sunday evening.

Playing on 17th-century instruments, the five musicians fought the Warner Bros. Theater’s unforgiving tendency to swallow up sound from the stage. Their efforts paid off in Dvorak’s “American” Quintet in E-flat, Op. 97, where violinist Mark Fewer made eye contact with his colleagues to encourage their joyful, cohesive playing. In the hands of violinist Karen Dekker, violists Steven Dann and Rory McLeod, and cellist Kenneth Slowik, the work attained an expressive resonance with variegated textures, especially in the larghetto. The hall’s dryness ultimately benefitted the quintet’s allegro vivo, where the lone viola melody soared above wispy pizzicato strings.

For Dvorak’s contemporary Anton Bruckner, however, the acoustics had the undesired effect of exaggerating the fragmented structure and repetitious nature of the composer’s Quintet in F. The theater was especially tough on the musicians during an exposed upper-string unison section, where even the slightest aberration in intonation sounded hyper apparent.

But the quintet regrouped for an impressive adagio, in which each historical instrument — four made by Stradivari and one viola by Nicolo Amati — basked in the spotlight, helping to stretch the score’s dynamic boundaries from feathery lines to a vibrant wave of music. There, the ensemble created a comforting warmth, like a complex cappuccino with nutty overtones topped with a hint of cinnamon and biscotti sweetness.

Jean is a freelance writer.

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